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Bloodfeud: Murder and Revenge in Anglo-Saxon England
Richard Fletcher
London: Penguin, 2002.
£7.99, 231 pages, ISBN 0-14-028692-6.

Cher Holt-Fortin
SUNY Oswego, Oswego NY

Having been brought up at Wighill, the site of the first murder in the blood feud of the title, Fletcher has a more than average interest the history of the area. The period he covers from 1016 to 1170 in Northumbria is one of change and growth. Fletcher wishes to explore the historical framework of that period and its place in English history. As he points out the Norman Conquest in 1066 was the second conquest “of the kingdom of England in the eleventh century” (1). And he also rightly informs us that few outside the academic specialty of medieval English history know much about the earlier invasions of the Danes. The Normans conquered in 1066, the Danes led by King Sweyn, in 1016.

Fletcher tells us; “In the course of the year 1016 there were five battles between the English and Danes, a long Danish blockade of London, and much laying of waste of territory” (1). Sweyn’s son Canute went against one Uhtred, an earl under the English king Ethelred II. Uhtred realizing Canute’s superior power agreed to submit to him and the place was fixed at Wiheal. The place itself no longer exists, but Fletcher surmises from the itinerary of Canute that Wighill might well have been the place. Since there is no concrete evidence for much of what happened in this period, historians must piece together records, maps and chronicles of the time and then choose the scenario or conclusion that seems to best suit the evidence. Thus much of what Fletcher writes is qualified with conditionals: “As befitted a ritual exchange of peace, and given the guarantee of safe-conduct, weapons and body-armour would have been left with the horses outside, in the care of grooms and servants” (3). Of course he has no direct proof of this, but the custom which dates back at least to Homer and is documented in Beowulf is traditional enough to allow him to claim it in his narrative.

Facts (and he and I use them advisedly when it comes to medieval chronicles) are presented with caution. He comments about the foreign nature of the eleventh century thus:

In a large part this is owing to the extreme paucity of the sources that have come down to us from that distant epoch. Everything that we know about Earl Uhtred of Northumbria could be written on a post-card. His death was reported in a single sentence by one strictly contemporary witness, the anonymous annalist who complied, possibly at York, what is known as manuscript D of the year-by-year account of public events which historians call the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. (4)

While the Chronicle is a major source, Fletcher also relies heavily on an anonymous document written, about 60 years after the death of Uhtred, by a monk at Durham. This document is mostly interested in landed endowments and the descent of estates in the area, but these provide the modern researcher with information on how various properties were transmitted between families, which in turn gives valuable information on the political fortunes of those families. And it is the feuding of the major families of Northumbria that interests Fletcher. The story in brief runs thus:

Earl Uhtred’s son, by name Ealdred, avenged his father’s murder by slaying the killer, Thurbrand. Thurbrand’s son Carl, in turn avenged his father’s death by killing Ealdred. In due course Ealdred’s grandson Watheof contrived to avenge that murder by cornering all Carl’s sons and grandsons when they were feasting together. (5)

Feuding went on in the US up into the last century. And a type of tribal feuding seems to exist yet in parts of the world. We have only to look at the former Yugoslavia and places in Africa to see the destruction caused by such ongoing warring. To understand such matters, medievalists have been applying the methods of anthropology to their studies for at least a century. According to Fletcher anthropology must be used sparingly in medieval studies since the society of eleventh-century England was ‘developed’ and complex in ways that many tribal peoples are not. Additionally anthropology tells us that “feud is not simply revenge, though the instinct of revenge underlies it” (8). The essence of feud is that it encompasses groups and is governed by “accepted social conventions” (8). The groups are usually kin, but feuds expand outward to take in retainers and neighbors. In a feud, the hostility is most often generated by a public affront to honor; verbal or physical abuse, abduction or rape, theft, arson, or murder all can start a feud. The state of hostility between the groups is recognized by outsiders as “a regular form of the relationship” (9). And as such is subject to various rules: the acceptable degree of violence, a notion of parity in exchange, collective liability, and an apparatus for negotiating between the hostiles (9).

As we see in Beowulf, feuding was an accepted and expected way of life in the Middle Ages. In that work there are three central instances of feuding, Grendel against man, man against man, and man against dragon. Round those central episodes circle a galaxy of related instances of feuding, each one reported as a negative example of the way a king and his people should interact. So in tracing the history of the Uhtred feud, Fletcher is interested not only in the feud but in the social and political outcome of each of the central murders. To establish the effects of the feuding, he first lays out the geo-political topography of England in the years leading up to the time of Canute. By about 800, four kingdoms had emerged out of the long years after the Romans departed. These kingdoms were Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria. They shared language and religion and similar institutions. They were also subject to Viking incursions, hence our story.

The history of those incursions and the infighting they caused among the royal houses of Northumbria comprise the rest of the book, as Fletcher traces the rise and fall of various earls, all surrounding Canute and Ethelred. The book is full of genealogical tables and maps which the lay reader needs to keep track of the intermarrying of four or five major families. In the chapter on Northumbria we learn that of the four areas of England it was the least ‘anglicized’ and hence the most dangerous for the kings of England to travel through. According to Fletcher, St. Cuthbert was the dominant presence in Northumbria, followed by a handful of great aristocratic families, among them the house of Bamburgh, family of Uhtred. Given the warring between the families and the Danish incursions, one does not wonder that the English kings were less than eager to go to Northumbria.

Uhtred was murdered at Wiheal. Others in the family, Ealdred, Eadwulf, and Oswulf were later murdered in the same feud. Thurbrand who murdered Uhtred was later killed by Ealdred. The feud finally ended or was lost sight of when Thurbrand’s grandsons were killed at Settrington by Waltheof, a grandson of Ealdred in the winter of 1073-4. Here the sources simply fail Fletcher and he engages in some informed speculation. The motive, revenge for a grandfather seems slim. Waltheof sends his young men, he does not go himself, a gesture Fletcher assures us was one of contempt. The massacre at feast is not without medieval precedence (189). And yet no real motive can be determined because the written sources simply are not there. Beyond this point in history there is no record of the feud.

Instead, Fletcher finishes his book with an account of Waltheof’s death because he rebelled against William the Conqueror. He was beheaded, and immediately a “cult had been born” (195). Waltheof who dies with the words of the Lord’s prayer on his lips becomes a local cult figure. His corpse remains incorrupt, a sure sign, and miracles of healing begin almost immediately (194).

To complete his story, Fletcher takes us to Wighill, the place where he begins it, and follows the Haget family, tenants of the Anglo-Norman magnate family of Mowbray (196). The Hagets come into possession of Wighill around 1140. Fletcher traces their fortunes into the twelfth century, by which time England is united under Henry II, Richard I and John. The Hagets were literate, educated provincial gentry who helped the kings to rule Northumbria. By the time John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, Northumbria was successfully integrated into England and the great feuding families were no longer there. They had destroyed themselves in the blood feud.

This is a densely written book that rewards the patient reader. Fletcher wants to make this period accessible to the non-specialist. He partly succeeds because he connects the feud and its results to later developments in English history, i.e., the Magna Carta. To the extent that he succeeds, Fletcher can take all the credit. He is a good writer, with a sense of humor. Commenting on the tendency of warriors to chew over old slights, he says “Even the most mustard-keen sportsmen and warriors cannot spend all their time talking about dogs and horses and weapons. (The force of boredom in human history is one that historians have underestimated.)” (140). He handles clearly the complicated sets of relationships involved in the feud and those families around it. What is harder is making the feud seem so important from this distance. And so one could wish a wide audience for this book, but one fears that it will remain the province of specialists and amateur scholars.

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